And so we come to it, this year’s heavyweights. No tasting of these bottles can really be done without touching upon what has been the pivotal accompanying controversy this year: prices. I was quite startled by the rapidity with which some people leapt upon the Diageo reps at the launch the other week and savaged them over the new pricing structure. It wasn’t a pretty sight, young and nubile Diageo minions were shredded before my eyes in a smorgasbord of sales-rep viscera. It was kind of like Hellraiser meets Bonny Doon. Set in Vietnam. Ok ok, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. The fury of people from all sides over this year’s prices has not gone unnoticed. Over dinner one of the Diageo team told us he genuinely believed that the prices had simply caught up with the product quality and were now deliberately sitting as an accurate reflection of the contents of the bottles. He did acknowledge that many people had sworn never to buy Diageo again, that they were disgusted by the greed and so on. It wasn’t surprising how many people spat and fizzed with fury like a potassium football in a swimming pool when they saw this year’s price list and I believe they have a point. However, it is important to remember that Diageo is not a big nasty bully. It is a vast, faceless engine of profit. It exists like all large corporations to make money. It employs largely good people to perform individual tasks that, while on their own are small and harmless enough, when added up they equal a huge pile of lovely cash. Diageo has basically perfected the art of pulverising raw materials into alcohol, squirting it down millions of throats and then hoovering up the money that spews forth from these booze-lubricated and willing pockets. It is a system of pure, efficient, profitable brilliance and when taken in the shaddow of that grand scheme, single malt scotch is small potatoes.
This is not the first time this has happened either, they got into a big smelly pricing quandary with the dreaded Manager’s Choice series a couple of years ago. I suspect they will still have no problem flogging all the bottles this time though (although how many will be drunk is another matter), the special releases are largely rather exceptional whiskies whereas the Manager’s Choice bottlings on the other hand… I think it’s the recurring issue of if they can sell them at that price then they’ll continue to put them out at that price and so what if anyone complains, there will almost certainly be someone there to take their place with a willing £600 wodge of cash at the ready. For me the prices they’re asking are not really fair or accurate. They look like prices compiled by someone who has taken a cursory glance over a list of recent auction results and cobbled a list together based on that. It strikes me as disingenuous of a company to say they’re realigning price with quality when what is obviously happening is simply an alignment of new releases with secondary market prices. What I think we have seen here, not for the first time but perhaps in the most significant way thus far is the complete abandonment by the premium malt sector of any notions or perceptions of fair value. There is no value in the products any more, these kinds of prices have made value exist purely as a notion in the minds and willpower of potential buyers. Whisky is now worth only what you are willing to pay for it and as long as there’s someone willing to pay more then the price goes up. This is how the secondary market has operated through auctions for years but now it seems to be spilling over into current releases. As long as there are people willing to pay these prices then you can’t really blame them for doing it but it does make you wonder, how long can it all keep going like this?
Diageo are an important company, they control the vast majority of the world’s bonded malt whisky portfolio and, as recent year’s have proven, they do a damn side better job of making and selecting these whiskies than many of their competitors, official or independent. Whatever else the Special Releases may be they are undoubtedly ‘Special’ when taken at face value and judged on their raw, organoleptic merits. I have an idea for Diageo. No one will ever consider it but I’m going to put it out there nonetheless…
Why not charge less for the Special Releases? In the grand scheme of Diageo’s vast alcoholic mechanisms premium single malts are a drop in the vatting tank. Wouldn’t it be better to trade the swimming pool of extra profits for an ocean of good will? Think of it this way, the 2013 special releases come out and the most expensive bottle is Port Ellen 13th release at £100. Maybe there’s a Brora 35yo at £90 a bottle, perhaps a Lagavulin 12yo at £30 and a Glenlochy 35yo at £80 (I know I’m being incredibly fanciful but go with me). The people that love these whiskies would all be able to afford them again, the goodwill factor towards Diageo would be tremendous. Many more would be consumed and enjoyed (which is what they always say they want), and, here’s the crux of the argument, there would almost certainly be a terrific knock-on effect on countless other Diageo brands, especially the single malts. The people who buy the special releases are discerning drinkers with big sway in the drinking habits of their social circles, the positive impact, even subconsciously would influence, in Diageo’s favour, what they bought and reccomended to and for their friends and family. In the end Diageo would make more profit through these channels and there’d be fewer people denouncing them as greedy booze-scrooges. Everyone’s a winner as they say.
At this point I’d like to make it clear I know absolutely nothing about business or economics so I’m probably being a ridiculous idealist, the sort of fool who believes in responsible capitalism and Radio 4 panel games. Anyway, Diageo, its an idea, why not give it a whirl, think of it as a christmas present to those of us who genuinely love the whiskies you make. Just an idea.
Brora 35yo 1976 & 1977 OB Special Releases 2012. Refill US oak. 1566 bottles. 48.1%. 70cl.
Colour: Rich straw
Nose: A perfectly elegant combination of wax, honeysuckle, chamomile, sea salt, kelp, green tea, preserved lemons, green peppercorns in brine and coal fires. Simmering phenols in the background, very similar to some early 70s Clynelish but with some extra phenolic oomph. Notes of petrol, old Rieslings, hessian, all kinds of mineral notes, wood resins, furniture wax and boot polish. MOre touches of honey and wild flowers like daisies and dandelions, in the background, a meadow, a seashore and a farmyard all rolled into one. With water: not much change, maybe a tad more complex, it’s still pretty sensational stuff.
Palate: A rich bit of salt, creosote, green, oily peat, something like wax syrup and a big hit of crushed black peppercorns. Peppered mackerel, touches of hummus and olive oil, lanolin, sandalwood and honeycomb. Wonderfully soft coastal aspects like green olives in brine, old medicine, mouthwash, dried seaweed, hints of high quality red wine vinegars and some mustard seed. With water: the peat is more focused, dryer, saltier and more mineral now. Big clean notes of lemon oil, camphor, coal smoke, smoked grains, watercress and smoked teas. Super classy stuff.
Finish: Long and zingy with a super crispy saline note with sea greens, wild flowers, ancient peat, bonfire smoke, creosote, medicine, all kinds of oily farmyard and industrial aspects with a final touch of flowers and garden fruits.
Comments: I think these bottlings have taken on quite a different style to the first four 30 year old special releases. The quality is still spectacular but the peat profile is very different, it’s more like a smoky old Clynelish rather than early 70s Brora. Still, it’s a style of whisky that absolutely no one is producing anymore and I’m grateful for every drop I taste these days. If there was an award for most emotional bottling in the Special Releases (or possibly out of all whiskies released in a year) then this one would win it hands down year upon year as far as I’m concerned.
Lets see how it compares to last year’s offering. I never wrote notes at the time so this should be interesting. Many people at the launch were saying how disappointed they had been with 2011′s offering in the Brora department. Let’s see what gives…
Brora 32yo OB Special Releases 2011. 1404 bottles. 54.6%. 70cl.
Colour: Young Sauternes
Nose: A little more nippy on the nose due to the higher strength but otherwise the directness of the house style is quite apparent, same old truckloads of wax, hessian, stables, boiler smoke, tar, chamomile, dried herbs, green tea, all kinds of citrus qualities and those big grizzly phenols bubbling away in the background with an elderly peat quality. Touches of eucalyptus, sea salt, turmeric, dried mint, honey, coal smoke and a lovely muttering of oak. With water: the change is more dramatic than in the 35yo, this one is immediately greener and saltier with a lighter profile, more flowers, seaweed, delicate notes of sandalwood, bonfire smoke and tea with lemon rind and little touches of peat oils.
Palate: Big dollops of salty wax, brine, kelp, seaweed, oysters, lemon juice, mead and savory touches like sunflower seeds, brown bread and a hint of yeast. Touches of cornflour, medicine, antiseptic, hay, muesli and smoked grains. Touches of aged dessert wine, honeycomb, minerals, early grey tea and wood spice. With water: bigger peat, a very fragrant smokiness like smoldering heather, tcp, cured meats, leather, lemongrass and hints of wood sap and ginger.
Finish: Long, warming and very spicy in the middle of the tongue with a slow, fading smokiness, herbs and aged peat notes.
Comments: Similar in style to the 35yo but I think I prefer the classiness of this year’s release more. This one was a bit of a multi-vintage whereas I think the vatting of two years for the 2012 release has been a real triumph. Having said all that this is still a spectacular whisky and anyone knocking it in comparison to this year’s release is bordering on splitting hairs as far as I’m concerned. Another majestic old Brora.
Talisker 35yo 1977 OB Special Releases 2012. Refill US & European oak. 3090 bottles. 54.6%. 70cl.
Colour: Straw gold
Nose: At first a lovely mix of tincture, seashore, wild flowers, iodine and white pepper. One of these pristine, fresh and superbly elegant aged peat aromas that is to be found in most of Diageo’s older peated expressions. Touches of geraniums, metal polish, steel wool, seaweed and floor cleaner but not in a particularly chemical way. The whole thing is very fresh and organic, becomes quite sooty after a while with mineral, pebble and coal notes with touches of wax jackets and hessian. With water: now we get some wonderful notes of soot, ash and green peppercorns with brine, fresh tarmac and oily phenols. Even some nice touches of floral soaps and mercurochrome.
Palate: A huge swathe of ash, lemon juice, charcoal, peat embers, seaweed, green olives and simmering medical flavours in the background. Quite hot and intense at first but in a very warming and comforting way, powerful but not aggressive in other words. This big ashiness is a little dominating though, nice mineral notes and citrus qualities but it feels like an uphill struggle with the other flavours. Lets get out the water: gets a little farmier now with hints of earth, wild mushrooms, tcp, earl grey tea and hummus. Goes on with turmeric, mustard seed and quite a few different oily notes.
Finish: Long and elegantly peppery with gentle touches of medicine, oil, peat, minerals and citrus. These ashy drying qualities are also pretty prominent.
Comments: I wasn’t sure about this one when I tried it at the launch, in fact I purposely reserved judgement till I could try it properly. Now that I have I must say my feelings are still a little mixed. It is certainly a top class whisky, no doubt, although for me the praise that has been heaped on it from certain quarters is not necessarily deserved. It feels like there is a great whisky in here trying to get out but just hindered ever so slightly by slight imbalances or extremes of character here and there. There is a sense of lightness about it overall which feels a little underwhelming, you keep expecting it to either develop into a powerhouse dram or a masterclass in poise and elegance, in the end it sits a little uncomfortably somewhere in between. I love it don’t get me wrong but I think it’s a bit tricky and, ultimately, slightly disappointing given the distillery and the provenance. Not quite up there with some of the brilliant 30yo releases from previous years in my opinion. Still, I’m splitting hairs a little here, it is still a wonderful dram.
Port Ellen 32yo 1979 12th Release OB Special Releases 2012. Refill US & European oak. 2964 bottles. 52.5%. 70cl.
Nose: Light, seafresh and bubbling with delicate coastal nuances at first, lots of sea greens, brine, all kinds of lemony qualities, fresh oysters, a simmering background peat, chocolate limes, hessian and a brittle saltiness. A great combination of mature qualities, a resilient youthful freshness and complexity. Touches of tobacco leaf, mint tea and bags of minerals, in time it reveals white flowers, dried seaweed and wet gravel. With water: hints of darjeeling, bergamot, wild flowers, more mineral notes, sandalwood, delicate touches of wood spice, turmeric and nutmeg. Becomes beautifully elegant, aromatic and complex. Wonderful Port Ellen.
Palate: A syrupy oiliness at first with a big fug of peat that is in part smouldering and phenol driven but also elegantly dirty and farmy as the best latter day Port Ellens so often are. Like peated mead with a resinous bonfire smoke, tar, old medicines, gentian spirit, white balsamic, eucalyptus oil, black olives and more seaweed and brine. Becomes very kippery with time, also showing notes of smoked muscles and dried herbs. With water: becomes leaner and less syrupy with water, instead you get a colder, more sinewy streak of smoke, metal, minerals, fresh herbs and sea salt. Fantastically lemony, faintly earthy, precise and focused.
Finish: Long and smouldering. Full of peat embers, ash, lemon skins, herbal notes, minerals and some traces of hazelnuts and vanilla.
Comments: Port Ellen is fast proving itself to be the best of the southern Islays at long aging. These releases seem to get better year on year. Although it will be very interesting to see what happens when they go back to the 1978 vintage for next year’s release, which I’m assuming they will given their strict adhesion to the pattern so far. There is no doubting this bottlings quality, some at the launch were rather dismissive of it, but for me it’s one of the stars of this year’s releases. I’ll not repeat myself about prices but if you get a glass in your hand and you can divorce it in your mind for a few moments from the rather unfortunate price tag then you’ll see what a great whisky it is. It doesn’t quite touch the Brora in my books, which is still my favourite of this year’s releases, but it’s not far behind. These are the sorts of bottles that after 20-30 years of bottle aging should be attaining masterpiece status. If anyone can afford to open one in 30 years that is.
Well that’s that over for another year. At the end of the day it has to be said, despite all the gargle about prices, the quality of these releases is really brilliant, I can never afford to buy them but they’re always such a privilege to taste each year.